‘Show, don’t tell’ when writing fiction

Perhaps the most common mistake among novice writers is that tell rather show.

To “tell” what happens is to state it directly, as might occur in a newspaper article. For example:

Lambert was excited to see another boot print.

To “show” what happens, however, is to present the events without being told directly how one feels or reacts. The above example of “telling” could be rewritten to show Lambert’s excitement:

“There’s another one!” Lambert said, pointing at the boot print.

The “show” example is far more dynamic writing. It helps create for the reader a sense of illusion that he is in the story, observing and even participating in the action. This helps generate dynamic tension and causes the reader to invest more in the character.

As a fiction writer, you’ll want virtually all of your sentences to show rather than tell. There a few instances when the author needs to “tell” – such as quickly providing a back story or to make dialogue sound realistic – but such occurrences should be rare.

As writing, look for words such as “was” “were” “is” “be” and “being”. These words usually indicate you’re telling rather than showing. Also, watch for nouns that are emotions, such as “angry”, “sad”, “happy”. Such words usually mean you’re telling rather showing. Rewrite those sentences so that you’re describing the action.

Showing rather than telling can be hard work for writers. Finding just the right words to describe how someone is excited or angry requires more thinking about the scene. But it’s well worth the slowdown and the sweat. You’ll have a much better story – and one that’s much more publishable as well.